When a family matter becomes the subject of an appeal before the highest appellate court, there is usually substantial property involved or an issue of significant legal importance. Both of these features were present in a decision of the UK Supreme Court in the case of Prest v Petrodel Resources Ltd  UKSC 34.
Yasmin and Michael Prest got divorced in 2011 and the wife brought an application for ancillary relief in relation to matrimonial property. In those proceedings, she made claims against her husband and several offshore companies in which her husband was a shareholder. Those companies owned substantial real property, including the family home.
During the course of the proceedings in the family court, the husband and the companies evaded or ignored numerous orders for disclosure, which would have enabled the court to accurately determine the financial status of the companies and their true ownership structures. Eventually, the first instance judge found that the husband was the sole beneficial owner and controller of the companies and that the available assets amounted to 37.5 million pound sterling.
The judge found in favour of the wife and ordered the transfer of several assets, including the family home to her, the payment of money, including the school fees for the four children, and for the husband and the companies to pay her costs in the amount of £600,000.
On appeal to the Court of Appeal, the decision of the first instance judge was overturned, so the wife appealed to the Supreme Court, which then reinstated the original ruling (for different reasons).
A seven-member panel of the Supreme Court considered the appeal, and the leading judgement came from Lord Sumption. Some of the most important points revolved around the fact that a company is a separate legal person from its shareholders, so it is usually difficult to look behind the corporate structure. Therefore, in a case where the family's assets are not legally owned by the husband or the wife, the court had to carefully examine how the properties came to be vested in those companies. As Lord Sumption stated, "The only basis on which the companies can be ordered to convey the seven disputed properties to the wife is that they belong beneficially to the husband ... . Only then will they constitute property to which the husband is "entitled, either in possession or reversion."
The court's approach to dealing with the husband's failure to comply with orders for disclosure and general lack of candour is noteworthy. Ultimately, the court resolved those issues by drawing adverse inferences for the failure to comply.
In this case, the wife could have claimed an interest in the shares held by the husband in the various companies that owned the assets. The difficulties in that approach related to the fact that the companies were all registered offshore and little was known about the financial standing, based on the failure to comply with orders for disclosure. Instead of pursuing the shares, the wife sought orders to liquidate the assets.
The Supreme Court found that there was no evidence to support a finding that the husband and the companies were the same legal persons. Instead, the court found that the properties were held by the companies on trust for the husband and the companies could, therefore, be ordered to transfer the properties to the wife.
Many Jamaican cases are no different than this one, as it is relates to the ownership of the family's assets. Whereas the statutes governing the division of matrimonial property in England and Jamaica are not the same, this case provides guidance in relation to how our courts may approach a similar issue.